The cradle of Parliamentarism
Finally my hands are on the most awaited travel guide ever since I started my blog project. And why is that you might ask? Certainly the answer is direct, Leon is the city I was born, hence why it hosts a special place and meaning in my heart. Of course, I will try to make it one of the most complete too, as are the likes of Madrid, Barcelona or Brussels to name a few of the cities I travel very often. With Leon nowadays, it’s a different story, not only I left to study in Madrid, but then left Spain itself to come to London where I made my living for the past 13 years. Unfortunately, travelling to Leon for a weekend is not possible since there are no direct flights, nor flights to the next nearest international airport at Valladolid where Ryanair scrapped the flights to London long ago. In the other hand, there is really no need for finding a suitable airport nearby, since the high-speed train links Madrid in barely only 2 hours.
Leon is a city of over 2000 years history, and a very very rich past. All started as a small Roman camp and base for farther extend the empire up north towards Galicia and Asturias, but due to an ideal location at what became to be a cross-roads in the north, northwestern of the country, with easy access to the rest of the country, and the newly discovered gold mines Las Medulas, it soon reached the status of a city during the Roman times. This is something quite unknown to most people, however these Roman mines were one of the richest and largest during the Empire, with the gold taken to Rome. The mines are now listed an UNESCO World Heritage Site, and are west of Leon some 130 kilometres, beyond the city of Ponferrada, in El Bierzo region, once so rich through the coal rush years until the industry collapse in the 1980’s.
While you can admire in Leon some of its Roman past, noteworthy the city’s walls, it is not the place you come for this, but instead, to admire its impressive medieval and Gothic architecture. One of the most complete of any city in the country, being its iconic highlight the Cathedral, finest example of French-style classic Gothic architecture in Spain.
Three further facts placed the city in the history books in capital letters: It is a main stop-over along the Saint James’s Way to Santiago de Compostela, hence for centuries, a continuous pilgrimage destination drawing national and international tourists with fascinating churches, monasteries and chapels all over the urban plan.
Next in line, one of the most important chapters in the history of Spain. It was year 910 of our era when saw Leon became the capital of the Kingdom of Leon, which took active part in the Reconquista against the Moors, becoming one of the fundamental kingdoms of medieval Spain and as such, one of the pillars to what would turn in the next centuries, the current country how we know it. Unfortunately for the city’s prominence, the massive rise and wealth began to decline in the early Middle Ages marked by the loss of independence after the union of the Leonese kingdom with the Crown of Castile.
One last even that put the city once again enhanced in the map, not only in Spain, but across Europe was in 1188 when the city hosted the first Parliament in European history under the reign of Alfonso IX. In 2010, the city was finally named as the cradle of Parliamentarism, with its “Decreta of Leon” included in the Memory of the World register by the UNESCO in 2013.
The artistic heritage can be admired almost everywhere withing its historic centre (inside the city’s walls) and in its late 19th, early 20th century extension outside of the walls with the characteristic orthogonal grid of streets that was trend in the whole of Spain at the same era with avenues crossing in diagonal and meeting at the major intersections creating grand squares with monuments and fountains. It’s easy to find in such districts a beautiful mix of architecture between neo-classic, neo-gothic, regionalist, art-nouveau and even art-deco from the later years. Considering Leon is a rather small city (in population), it does have a very large historic core and lots of sights all over, hence a weekend is the minimum you should consider to enjoy it the most. Then if you count the countless historical places and monuments such as monasteries and churches, impressive entirely preserved medieval villages; cities full of history such as Astorga, or the rich nature just few kilometres north, between the mountains, valleys, rivers, gorges and such astonishing landscapes the average tourist is unfortunately not aware of their existence, then you could spend weeks in only visiting the Province.
Among the city’s treasures and must visit sights are, on first place of course, the majestic cathedral, unique in being the finest example of French-style classic Gothic architecture in the whole of Spain. Take alone its nickname, “the House of Light”. Once you enter and admire the hundreds of glass-works then you will understand why that name. It was built atop the Roman city that still lies beneath, like every building and street beyond into the Barrio Humedo (the old town core). You can see some of the ancient remains at one of the sides of the cathedral, and at many points through the city. Possibly on second place, your next masterpiece in line would be the San Isidoro Basilica. This place is huge when combining all the buildings, and the city’s walls attached along the entire southern side. The importance is not just the artistic heritage in the church and its Romanesque architecture, but for being the final resting place of the Kings of Leon at the Royal Pantheon, meticulously decorated with medieval paintings from the 12th century.
A third imperative sight would the the Casa Botines. this, for the lovers of architecture, especially art-nouveau, and lovers of the works of Antoni Gaudi, then would be a must when planning a trip to Leon. It is one of only 3 works the genius architect created outside of Barcelona, 2 of which are in Leon. Here the Casa Botines, and in the city of Astorga, the Episcopal Palace.
This is of course, a tiny brief introduction on what you are about to see and enjoy giving you the key facts. Thereafter, once you discover the Leonese cuisine you will definitely fall in love. First of all, the tapas is a whole institution itself. Not only it is one of the few places in the whole of Spain you get them entirely free as you order your drink, it will be always served to you. And don’t worry in asking the bar staff if they’ve forgotten, you will be literally stuffed with very generous size of tapas of any kind. “Ir de bares” is the expression to say go from bar to bar, and everyone does it. 3 small beers for example, and you do not need lunch or dinner anymore. Specially in the Barrio Humedo, each of the bars here have their very long tradition with the tapas they serve, and many of these are over a century old and more. It is also in here where people go out partying, with countless discos and bars.
Plenty other areas are now purely gentrified, and the new generation of tapas-bar is quickly taking over: the gastro-bar. While their inside decoration is very modern and appealing, sometimes thematic, their tapas are more elaborate, or “posh” if you like that word better. Good news here, the price is just only a little bit higher than the traditional bars. Good neighbourhoods having amazing gastro-bars are Eras de Renueva to the northwest; or La Palomera in the northeast.
Naming some of the famous leonese cuisine, you have morcilla (blood sausage), cecina (cured smoked beef), botillo (a dish based of meat-stuffed pork intestine), sopas de ajo (garlic soup) and cocido leonés (mix of meat with vegetables and chickpeas, served after a vegetable vermicelli soup). All of these accompanied by some of the great wines form the province such as Ribera de Duero or Vino del Bierzo, coupled with some mantecadas (a traditional sweet) would be a dream for a food lover, yet that is only a small selection of countless products.
For more information about Leon check Wikipedia site. Spain’s currency is the Euro (EUR). Please note that any price reference is true as from when this guide was created, therefore check prices in advance as with the time they change.
What to see and do in Leon
- Northwest Characterised for being the area with the largest parks and the “new” districts such as Eras de Renueva famous for a quite solid gastro-bar culture.
-Museum of Contemporary Art MUSAC In the heart of Eras de Renueva district is this spectacular museum worth the visit even if it is only from the outside architecture with its multiple glass panels of different colours all over the entire facade, creation of Mansilla + Tuñón Arquitectos.
-Auditorium Another of the great works of architecture in the same district, and also by the same architects Mansilla + Tuñón. It directly faces the Plaza de San Marcos.
- Riverside Along the entire west of the city, dividing Leon from the old and 19th/20th century extension with the outer districts beyond the Bernesga River. It’s a great space fully recovered and landscaped all the way from the north at Plaza de San Marcos to the south by the bullring.
-Plaza de San Marcos One of the major sights in the city for anyone, being tourists or locals. A great landscaped open square opening to the great monastery. The Saint Jame’s Way crosses through here, and along the bridge to the west.
-Monastery of San Marcos A prime example of plateresque and Renaissance architecture in Spain. It’s an official stop-over along the Way of Saint James’ since many centuries when it was a pilgrim’s hospital in the 12th century. Nowadays there is the church and cloister in use, with the rest of the building turned into one of the most luxurious “Parador Nacional” in Spain (one of the top hotel chain in Spain housed in such type of exclusive buildings).
-Roman Bridge One of the most visible remains form ancient Leon is this greatly preserved bridge. Right across to the west bank you will get the best views of the monastery, bridge and river itself.
-Quevedo Park Right across the bridge, one of the most beautiful and oldest parks in the city, famous for the large amount of ducks of many kinds, and ancient trees.
-Paseo de la Condesa This is the name that receives the riverside promenade from Plaza de San Marcos to Plaza Guzman el Bueno. It’s the prime area to have a nice and quiet walk among centuries old oak trees, gardens and sculptures.
-Guzman el Bueno Roundabout One of three large in the city created in the urban extension of the late 19th/early 20th century. Here connects the 4 cardinal points at the riverside joint. Notice the street plan included the viewpoints where from here you can see all the way to Santo Domingo Square and the Cathedral towers to the east; La Inmaculada Virgin Mary statue at Inmaculada Roundabout at northwest; the Monastery of San Marcos to the north and the bullring at the south.
-Paseo de Papalaguinda The continuation of the riverside promenade south of Guzman el Bueno. More landscaped gardens and plenty of bridge crossings across the river.
-Bullring The southernmost sight in the city, if you are anyway into this kind of either “sport” or architecture. It is nevertheless, a great piece of architecture from the outside, and nowadays used most of the times as a concert hall.
- East of the river – The Extension Commonly known as El Ensanche, like in any other city in Spain that created new urban areas in the late 19th/ early 20th centuries. The entire section east and within Plaza de San Marcos at the north to the Bullring at the south with the river aligning at the west is considered one of the most desirable, and elegant for its architecture, notably regionalist, neoclassical and modernist.
-Inmaculada Square The central rounded-shape square in this district with 8 streets radiating from here, being the most important Gran Via in the northwest to southeast axis, linking the Monastery of San Marcos and Santo Domingo Square at the brink of the old town.
-Ordono II Street One of the prime shopping streets, linking Guzman el Bueno at the west with Santo Domingo Square at the east. Almost every building in the street is of special historic value. Noteworthy to mention are:
-Bank of Spain Building Nowadays the Delegation of Finance and Economy.
-Santander Bank A large palace painted in pink from the early 20th century in a style traditional from Cantabria and Santander itself.
-Casa Luben One of the most emblematic modernist construction in the city, with its characteristic turret at one of its main corner facades.
-Number 16 A great piece of eclectic architecture, emphasising the elegance with both turrets at its main corner facade.
-Casa Lorenzana At number 4, was built in 1914 in late art-nouveau style.
-Casa Ciriaco The first one in the street, and one of the finest, facing Santo Domingo Square, dates from 1912.
-Santo Domingo Square The main meeting point and transport hub, right in the very heart of the city. The square itself is one of the most beautiful too.
-Casa Goyo Built in 1920, was the tallest building in the city after the Cathedral, the first to include an elevator during the project, and also one of the most exclusive, title that still preserves today in its monumental architecture.
-Museum of Leon Created in 1869 as the principal museum depicting the history of the city through the centuries. Here is one of the main buildings, with the historic headquarter at the Monastery of San Marcos.
-BBVA Bank Occupying the entire building that was the Casino. Built in 1919 acts as the finest example in the city of a brick construction in so much detail and care.
-Casa Roldan One of the wealthiest block when built in 1925 as luxurious apartments and shopping spaces, still imposing for its sober architecture.
- Old Town One of the best and largest preserved medieval cores in Spain, and one of the few that are still almost entirely circled by the Roman walls, although restored and enlarged in the 3rd and 4th centuries.
-San Marcelo Square The main access point to the old town from the western side. This area, outside of the walls is adjacent to Santo Domingo.
-Casa Botines Physically right behind the BBVA Bank, it is a modernist masterpiece from 1893, creation of genius architect Antoni Gaudí in neo-Gothic style, with plenty of medieval touches to match the surrounding buildings. It is one of only 3 buildings from the architect outside of Barcelona, 2 of which are in the Province of Leon.
-Palacio de los Guzmanes Facing the northeastern side of the square, right at the beginning of emblematic Calle Ancha street that leads to the Cathedral Square. Built in the 16th century in Renaissance style by Gil de Hontañón, is the site of the Provincial Parliament. Don’t miss the plateresque style patio inside.
-San Marcelo Church Named after the patron of the city. This Romanesque church is one of the oldest still standing in the city.
-Old City Hall Built in place of the former Grand Theatre, it is one of the finest neo-classical buildings in Leon.
-Torreblanca Palace At the southernmost side of the square, built in 1672.
-El Cid Park Behind the Palace of Guzmanes and Casa Botines, it is one of the most charming gardens in the old town, with an entire side aligned by the Roman city walls, and a Roman fountain found during excavations and still working.
-North, East and South along the walls You can follow the entire walls from El Cid Park all the way, passing through major sights along the way. It’s a must do to be honest when visiting Leon, and while from here you could cross Calle Ancha and reach the Cathedral, you can go all along the walls perimeter instead and reach the same point.
-Basilica of San Isidoro One of the most important Romanesque churches in Spain and resting place of the Kings of Leon at the impressive pantheon. This is a huge complex with the church, cloister, pantheon and courtyards. The museum grants you access to the reliquary and pantheon, but the church is free to access. The entire western facade is marked by the walls and towers.
-Provincial Archives Housed in the former prison, next to what was the main gate at the northern side of Roman Legio VII city. The old city walls were further enhanced and enlarged providing an extreme robust stronghold.
-Arco de la Carcel One of four entrances to the former Roman walled city. The gate itself was reconstructed in the 18th century.
-Casona de Victor de los Rios Attached to the Arco de la Carcel, this house now completely restored gave light to one of the best archaeological sites in the city. Some of the first constructions of the Roman camp. The building is now a museum about the Roman past of Leon.
-Calle Carreras y de los Cubos Continuing east from Arco de la Carcel, you will walk aligning the most complete section of the walls and towers.
-Plaza de Regla Where Calle de los Cubos terminates is at the back of the Cathedral, with the square aligning by its main side and front.
-Porta Principalis Sinistra The remains of another Roman gate, in this case the east gate. Some further archaeological remains are visible through the glasses in the square.
-Cathedral The main sight in Leon. It’s the finest example of French-style classic Gothic architecture in Spain. Also known The House of Light because of the impressive collection of stained glasses all over the facades, or the Pulchra Leonina (the Beauty of Leon). Built atop the former Roman therms, first as the Palace of King Ordono II in the year 800, and then almost the entire cathedral done between 1205 and 1301. Majority of the stained glass dates from the 13th century and cover up to 1800 square meters, a rarity among the medieval Gothic churches to have survived in such detail. Together with Burgos and Santiago de Compostela, it’s one of the 3 most important along the Way of Saint James.
-Episcopal Palace Along the southern face of the square. Dating from the 17th century, has a wonderful courtyard should you be lucky enough to find it open.
-Seminario Mayor San Froilan Next building after the Episcopal Palace, in brick renaissance style.
-Provincial Council of Leon At the northern side of the square, easy to recognize as the modernist granite building.
-Calle Ancha As mentioned before when talking about Santo Domingo Square, this is the main thoroughfare crossing the old town linking both squares, and one of the most characteristic and beautiful in the city. It’s aligned by palaces and elegant residential buildings from the 18th century and earlier. Any street leading to the south from here access the Barrio Humedo, merely meters from here.
- Barrio Humedo This is the name that receives the historic medieval city centre, beyond the originally walled area, with its many labyrinthine streets, charming squares and countless bars, discos and restaurants of any kind. It starts literally south form the Cathedral Square.
-Conde Luna Market Taking Calle Regidores off Calle Ancha, that’s the one near Palacio de los Guzmanes you reach one of the main food stall markets.
-Palace of the Conde Luna From the 14th century, in Moorish-Gothic style. It is nowadays a branch of the University of Seattle.
-San Martin Square The heart of the tapas tradition self explained in here. One after another you have great bars, all serving their unique famous tapas, but it’s not just limited to the square anyway, you will find hundreds all around the streets over here. Naming the most famous are La Bicha, El Tizon, La Pintona, El Botijo and El Rebote, and El Gaucho in a tiny street from the north side of the square.
-San Martin Church Originally built in the 10th century in Romanesque style, making it one of the oldest constructions in the city, it is however, very much upgraded through the centuries.
-Plaza Mayor The iconic central square as it is for most of the cities in Spain, with the buildings around all sides in pretty much the same form and architecture, dating from the 18th century, bearing both main fronts where the principal buildings are. In this case, the Old City Hall at the western side, and the current NH Hotel at the eastern side, the former mansion of a bourgeois family.
-Conde de Don Ponce Tower You can reach it in a charming square from the northeastern street out of Plaza Mayor. Dates from the 12th century.
-Don Gutierre Square Accessible through 2 streets that come out from San Martin Square. Again, another space surrounding by old architecture and the sober Palace of Diego Villafañe.
-Plaza del Grano A small street away from the previous square. In this case, is the most traditional of any in Leon, where one can feel what used to be like the 18th century almost without any change, with the traditional medieval cobblestone. On the western side you can see the Church of Our Lady of the Market.
-Las Concepcionistas Convent West from Plaza del Grano (behind the church) at the intersection of Calle Herrero and Calle la Rua (which is part of the Saint James’ Way) and Calle San Francisco. At the opposite side of the convent you can see the remains of the medieval walls along Calle Independencia.
- Province of Leon With that many historic cities, villages and such a lush nature and landscape at merely 30 minutes away, you could easily spend days visiting the province. To list some:
-San Miguel de Escalada Located 30 kilometres east from Leon, it is famous for its well preserved Mozarabic 10th century monastery.
-Sahagún 65 kilometres east from Leon, along the Way of Saint James’. This small city is famous for hosting some of the earliest 10th century Mudejar architecture churches in Spain, and so these from the 15th century.
-Hoces de Vegacervera At the north of Leon as you approach the mountain range. The Hoces itself is a narrow mountain pass with the river in between, very beautiful from the nature point of view. Farther beyond are the Valporquero Caves with impressive stalactite/stalagmite formations.
-Picos de Europa National Park At the northeast corner of the province, shared between the three autonomous regions of Catilla y Leon, Asturias and Cantabria. Here are the highest and most impressive peaks of the Cantabrian Mountain Range.
-Astorga At just 52 kilometres west of Leon, it is the second most visited city in the province. Not only the Saint James’ Way passes through, but the great Roman remains and the second work of Antoni Gaudi in the province make it a must visit.
-Ponferrada The second largest city in the province after Leon, 115 kilometres west (63 from Astorga). Once the heart of the coal and heavy industry until the collapse of the 1980’s, nowadays reinventing itself with one of the best coal mines museum in Spain among other new spaces, and the Templar Castle.
-Las Medulas Roman Mines 27 kilometres west from Ponferrada, this was the largest ever gold mine across the Roman Empire. UNESCO World Heritage Site listed, you can admire and impressive man-made landscape like no other.
While the city does have a small airport, regional during the low season months, and international through the summer period, it is not convenient at all. First of all flights are limited, and second in line are way too expensive. Taking this option away, means you need to invest more time in order to reach Leon being either via Asturias or Madrid airports.
On a good side note, the high-speed line from Madrid towards Galicia is now fully operation as far as Ponferrada, this means a trip from Madrid is little over 2 hours and few mins. Getting some railway tickets, if booking in advance there are nice offers, however the shorter the notice, it can hike seriously therefore consider these facts before making any booking. There are of course, the conventional trains taking over 4 hours, at much lower cost. With the years to come, there will be the high-speed line towards Cantabria and Asturias ready, and so to Galicia completed further reducing travel times.
By bus is your next option. Anywhere in Spain it’s easy to do, and very reliable and comfortable. Long distance buses in Spain do generally have TVs too, making the journey even more relaxing.
When in the city, there are only public and inter-urban buses, a commuter railway line to Asturias and towards Ponferrada via Astorga, and a narrow-gauge railway towards the north villages, the mountains, and farther beyond linking Leon with Bilbao once daily. In any case, there is no need for taking any transportation to move anywhere in the city, everywhere you go are short distances and the best way to enjoy is on foot.
Without ever needing to stay at a hotel in the city, there is not much I can say on this subject as I lack the experience, however considering it is a small city, it does in fact boasts a huge variety of accommodation from the top luxurious and boutique style to the more modest ones, and everything in between. As for which area is best to stay, it’s not complicated to decide, almost anywhere is fine, and you will be a short distance from majority of the sights.
As usual the most reasonable point to start your search is by checking some of our preferred affiliate hotel search engine such as Hotels.com, Booking.com, Expedia, Otel.com, Agoda, Opodo, LateRooms or Ebookers. Then, if your budget is still not met, there is a good selection of properties through airb&b and the likes of course.
Album from the city of Leon
Album from Las Medulas